Weirdness Is A Platform

Tuesday 8th March 2016. Starting research on the next essay, which is due at the end of spring. I’ve decided to properly examine the connection between Menippean satire and selected contemporary US fiction, after taking the cue from Margaret Atwood’s review of Eggers’s The Circle (see earlier diary). I had something of a Eureka moment when finding an article which equated literary camp in the Firbank style (one of my pet subjects) with the Menippean genre. I think the former can be more usefully viewed as a sub-genre of the latter. They both use a similar approach – they both draw attention to surfaces, and in a playful way.

* * *

Thursday 10th March 2016. MA class at Birkbeck. This week we do David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, his last book of stories. Some of it I find hard going, particularly his long, drawn-out sentences with endless clauses. Vonnegut’s advice to ‘pity the reader’ didn’t apply to DFW. The story about suicide, ‘Good Old Neon’ now has an unavoidable autobiographical side to it. Funny how Wallace satirised brand culture so much, yet he became such a recognisable brand himself, with the long hair, the Lennon glasses, and the Axl Rose bandana. It’s certainly a distinctive look for a novelist.

I watch the news of the US presidential campaigns, and I wonder how much of Donald Trump’s success is down to his strong look, too. I think about him and Boris Johnson, and wonder if it’s to do with funny blond hair and a sense of being from a different planet. People are now bombarded with so many images every day, only the odd-looking can truly leave an impression. Weirdness is now a platform in itself. In which case perhaps now is the best time to launch some sort of new public career for myself (not politics, though).

* * *

Friday 11th March 2016. To the Leicester Square Odeon, for one of the smaller screens hidden at the back of a branch of Costa. This is where all the new films in London go when they’ve been out for a while, just before they come out on DVD.

(going by adverts, DVDs are still being made and sold, despite the closure of many entertainment shops, and the rise of Netflix. The new poster for the Carol DVD advises you to buy it at Sainsbury’s).

Along with the Prince Charles and the Odeon Panton Street, the smaller section of the Leicester Square Odeon is a Last Chance Saloon for those who like cinemas. I’m keen to mop up the rest of this year’s Oscar-winning films, so I’m here to see The Danish Girl, for which Alicia Vikander won Best Supporting Actress. Justifiably so: she’s one of the best things about the film. She plays Gerda Wegener, a real-life bohemian painter in 1920s Copenhagen, whose husband Einar underwent one of the first examples of sex reassignment surgery, and became Lili Elbe. Though, as it’s been pointed out by those who know the full story, the film isn’t always faithful to the facts. The cause of Elbe’s death, for one, is rewritten to suit the film’s narrative arc.

There’s a promising scene early on, where Gerda is working at her canvas, with a cigarette holder clenched in her mouth. Despite this she is still able to deliver a lecture to her nervous male sitter on the importance of the female gaze. Ms Vikander’s performance in scenes like this is one of liveliness, individuality, humour and nuance. Mr Redmayne, meanwhile, goes through Elbe’s changes from husband to woman with one unchanging emotion: Pained Martyrdom. He means well, but does the acting equivalent of walking on eggshells, not so much overly mannered as overly self-conscious. I wonder if he was hampered by realising that the wider climate of trans issues has changed, that people want to see more trans actors in such roles, and that this whole film now feels curiously out of date. One working trans actor, Rebecca Root, has a small part in the film as a nurse. But even she has said in interviews that she hopes The Danish Girl will be the last major film about trans lives without a trans person in the lead. It’s an issue that isn’t going away.

This week also saw the public coming-out by the Matrix co-director Lilly Wachowski (after some odious doorstepping by the UK Daily Mail). Her co-directing sister Lana Wachowski transitioned a few years ago, and is listed in the Danish Girl credits for helping Eddie R with his performance. The trans journalist Paris Lees and the trans pioneer April Ashley were similarly brought on board. But of course, performance advice is not the same as writing the script or directing the whole film. April Ashley has since commented that Eddie R’s performance verges on a dated, pantomime idea of femininity: he ‘should not be dropping his eyelashes every two minutes’.

I’m convinced The Danish Girl will become as out-of-date as those early attempts by Hollywood to depict gay characters, such as the 1960s film The Children’s Hour. Back then, a pro-gay narrative could only be put before a mainstream audience if it meant scenes of emotional agony, tearful admission and an untimely death. Then as now, the road to compromise is paved with good intentions.

The film’s director is Tom Hooper, of The King’s Speech fame, which also rewrote history. But like The King’s Speech I have to admit The Danish Girl still works as a lavish and visually engaging costume drama. It does look wonderful, with its locations shot from very carefully composed angles, the better to resemble the paintings in the story.

* * *

Saturday 12th March 2016. To the Tate Modern for the exhibition Performing for the Camera. This has rather an ambitious brief: the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of the camera to the present day. Even narrowing it down to images by artists must have been a headache. By its own nature it can only be a series of examples. The final room is so inevitable it curates itself: new artists who use selfies on Instagram to construct little fictional narratives. Cindy Sherman did the ‘fictional selfie’ thing much earlier, of course, and it’s good to see she’s given her due here. But it goes back to the 1920s too, with Claude Cahun’s androgynous self-portraits, and Duchamp in his drag persona, an image which made the cover of Mark Booth’s 80s book, Camp. Bowie was on the back.

I like the Yves Klein jumping-into-space photo, here presented with the two images it cunningly combined – one with Klein jumping above a gang of men holding a safety net, and one with an empty street. The join is utterly invisible, a 1960 version of Photoshop. It blurs the lines between illusion, hoax, and art. Elsewhere, Ai Weiwei drops a Han Dynasty vase, in three horrifying stages.

There’s lots of 80s Warhol here too. A 1986 copy of NME shows Warhol and Debbie Harry sitting with a home computer, for some reason (is one needed?). I love AW’s photo of Keith Haring body-painting Grace Jones. This is also a neat reference to the exhibition’s photos of Yves Klein’s 60s ‘happenings’, where women would roll around in paint as part of a public performance, while a string quartet played. Actually, going by this exhibition, 90% of 1960s happenings seemed to involve nudity.

The whole exhibition radiates with the idea that performing for the camera is essentially a fun thing to do, even when it’s art. The camera click still has the essence of novelty, whatever the age. For all Klein’s trickery, the creation of a posed photo is magic enough.

Tags: , , , , ,

RIP David Foster Wallace

Back in Highgate, to read the shocking news that David Foster Wallace, author of Infinite Jest, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, has hanged himself.

Zero coverage on the BBC, or even the Guardian. I know he’s an American author and it’s a Sunday, but even so. Come on BBC, if you can report today that Kazakhstan has bought the rights to The Vicar of Dibley, you can flipping well manage a sentence or two to mark Mr Wallace’s passing. He’s hardly obscure.

Just as well I subscribe to 3AM: